What is Spectrum?

Spectrum gives tried-and-tested advice on the things most museums do when managing their collections. Some of these are daily activities, such as moving objects around and updating location records. Others are occasional, like updating insurance cover. Spectrum calls all these activities procedures and there are 21 of them.

Who is it for?

Spectrum is for museums of any size and any collection type, and may also be useful to similar institutions with museum-like collections. To keep things simple, we use ‘museum’ to cover all collections-based organisations, and ‘you’ to mean everyone involved in managing your collections: from the governing bodies who set policies and budgets to every level of staff and volunteer, both front-of-house and behind the scenes.

Spectrum originated in the UK and is used by all Accredited museums there, but in recent years the standard has been adopted by a number of other countries and translated into several languages.

What is in a Spectrum procedure?

Each procedure has:

  • A definition that tries to sum up the procedure in a single sentence.
  • A fuller note on the scope of the procedure, which explains when to use it (and, at times, when to use a different procedure).
  • The Spectrum standard. This is what you should aim to achieve, however you do it. There are two parts to the standard:
    • Some policy questions you will need to consider.
    • The minimum requirements you should meet in your museum’s own written procedure. An example or two suggests why each is important.
  • A suggested procedure (and it is only a suggestion) given in two formats:
    • A workflow diagram summarising the suggested way of doing things.
    • A text version, which includes the information requirements for the procedure (see below). Where needed, the text versions of suggested procedures also include guidance notes.

The important thing to stress right away is that there is no one way to put any of these procedures into practice. Whether your museum uses paper-based systems,  a computerised collections management system or – most likely – a mix of the two, you can adapt the suggested procedures to suit your needs. So long as your museum’s way of doing things meets the minimum requirements of the Spectrum standard, your documentation should be fundamentally sound.

Information requirements

As you follow the text version of a suggested procedure you will notice that the bits of information you might need to record are listed (eg Object name, Entry number, Brief description). Spectrum calls these concepts units of information and lists them in information groups (eg Object identification information). You can find guidance on how to record this information in the appendix volume of the printed Spectrum or by following the links in the online version. There are more details about the information requirements at this link.

Primary procedures

In Spectrum 5.0 there are nine primary procedures. These are the ones that most museums will use most of the time. UK museums wanting to meet the requirements of the Accreditation scheme will have to demonstrate that they meet, or have a plan to achieve, the Spectrum standard for all nine.

  • Object entry – Logging all objects coming into your care for whatever reason, including loans, enquiries and potential acquisitions.
  • Acquisition and accessioning – Taking legal ownership of objects, especially (but not always) to add to your long-term collections through the process of accessioning: the formal commitment by your governing body to care for objects over the long term.
  • Location and movement control – Keeping a record of where all the objects in your care can be found, and updating the location each time an object is moved.
  • Inventory – Making sure you have the basic information to be accountable for the objects in your care, and tackling the backlog if you do not.
  • Cataloguing – Managing the information that gives your collections meaning, not as an end in itself but to record and retrieve what is known about your objects.
  • Object exit – Recording when objects leave the buildings you are responsible for and pass out of your direct care.
  • Loans in (borrowing objects) – Managing objects you borrow for a fixed period of time and for a specific purpose.
  • Loans out (lending objects) – Assessing requests for you to lend your objects and managing the lending process until loans are returned to you.
  • Documentation planning – Making your documentation systems better and enhancing the information they contain as an ongoing process of continual improvement.
Other procedures

In practice the Spectrum procedures cross-refer to each other so much that following almost any primary procedure will quickly lead to other, non-primary ones. For example, the suggested procedure for (primary) Object entry recommends checking the condition of objects arriving at your museum, at which point you would switch to the (non-primary) Condition checking and technical assessment. If you follow the recommendation there to photograph objects as a record of their condition, you would switch again to (non-primary) Reproduction. While this might take getting used to, cross-referencing between procedures cuts the need to repeat the same guidance in several places.

You may not ever need some of these procedures, but it is worth knowing what they cover in case you do:

  • Condition checking and technical assessment – Documenting the make-up and condition of objects, and noting any resulting recommendations.
  • Collections care and conservation – Managing and documenting any conservation work on particular objects, such as treatments to slow decay, repair damage or improve appearance.
  • Valuation – Documenting the financial value of objects, whether your own or borrowed.
  • Insurance and indemnity – Ensuring your own objects, loans and other objects left in your care have appropriate cover against damage or loss.
  • Emergency planning for collections – Managing information about potential risks to all the objects in your care, and the action to be taken in emergency situations.
  • Damage and loss – Responding to damage to, or the loss of, objects in your care.
  • Deaccessioning and disposal – The formal decision by a governing body to take objects out of its long-term collections (deaccessioning), and managing the disposal of those objects through an agreed method.
  • Rights management – Managing the intellectual property rights and data protection rights associated with objects, reproductions and information.
  • Reproduction – Managing and recording the creation of images and other kinds of reproduction of objects, including digital copies.
  • Use of collections – Managing and recording how your collections, including images and other reproductions of them, are used, whether by you or anyone else.
  • Collection review – Managing and documenting any formal assessment of your collections that follows a stated methodology.
  • Audit – Systematically checking the accuracy and completeness of the information you have about your collections.

Although each procedure includes policy questions, you do not need to write 21 separate policies. Instead, you might include answers to relevant policy questions within four broad policies that set out in an integrated way how you will develop, document, use and care for your collections to further your museum’s mission.

Although there is likely to be much crossover, the Spectrum procedures might fall under these policy areas:

  • Collections development policy – Object entry, Acquisition and accessioning, Deaccessioning and disposal, Collections  review
  • Collections information policy – Location and movement control, Inventory, Cataloguing, Object exit, Documentation planning, Valuation, Insurance and indemnity, Rights management, Reproduction
  • Collections access policy – Loans in (borrowing objects), Loans out (lending objects), Use of collections
  • Collections care policy – Condition checking and technical assessment, Collections care and conservation, Emergency planning for collections, Damage and loss

For more guidance on how to shape your policies into this kind of integrated collections management framework, see the resources area of the Collections Trust website.

Spectrum Compliant software

You do not need a computerised system to put Spectrum into practice, nor to meet the requirements of the Accreditation scheme. Some smaller museums manage  with entirely paper-based systems. However, most museums these days use a mix  of paper (especially when signatures are needed) and some kind of collections management software. From the wide range now available you should be able to find one suited to your museum’s needs. You can compare the systems offered by our Spectrum Partners at www.collectionstrust.org.uk/software. Many of these systems are Spectrum Compliant.

If software is Spectrum Compliant it has a place for every unit of information you might need to record for any procedure. There might not always be an exact one-to-one match between Spectrum units and system fields, but the developer will have shown Collections Trust how they map across. More importantly, the developer will be able to explain to you how to record any Spectrum unit using the system. Only systems validated by Collections Trust can call themselves Spectrum Compliant.

Further advice

Previous editions of Spectrum have included references to further sources of advice, other relevant standards, codes of practice and legislation. To keep this information more up to date than is possible in print, links to these resources are now maintained on the Collections Trust website.